The Celtics and their fans are getting tired of proclaiming “moral victories” and “statement losses.” But their injury-depleted battle to the end the Indiana Packers Sunday left at least one cause for hope: Marcus Smart.
Smart started the game with three “Smart-play” takeaways (one steal, two forced errors), and seemingly never looked back.
Even after what looked like a nasty thumb-stub in the second half added another Celtic to the injury toll. Smart finished the game, totaling 8 assists, 4 steals, 3-4 drawn charges, and a team-high 7 rebounds. On Monday, though, he was wearing a cast.
Perhaps most important, Smart — whose shooting stats continue to rise — knocked down 6 of 12 three-pointers to finish with 20 points on just 13 shots.
For the season, Smart’s effective field goal rate remains at 44 percent. Since January 1, however, he’s been shooting at a 56 percent rate — above the NBA average of 52 percent. Considering all the other things Smart does, simply getting above the NBA’s “Mendoza Line” is a big deal for the Celtics — and Smart’s hopes for a long-term contract this summer.
“The rest of us just have to step up”
When the preseason began, the Celtics planned on starting Gordon Hayward, Kyrie Irving, Al Horford, and Jaylen Brown. When the game ended Sunday, none of those four players were on the floor. Yet Jayson Tatum (19 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists), Marcus Morris (10 points), Terry Rozier (16 points), and smart led a spirited comeback to come within one three-point shot of victory.
Smart and the Celtics offered no excused after the game. “The rest of us just have to step up,” he told reporters.
Al Horford’s absence for the game should carry a message for his critics. Boston’s max-contract big is especially needed against the NBA’s best. Without him, Boston was outscored 46-26 in the paint, and committed 18 turnovers.
Schedule and playoff position notes
The win moves Indiana into a half-game lead over the Cleveland Cavaliers for the #3 seed in the Eastern Conference. The Celtics maintain a comfortable 7-game lead for the #2 slot, but now trail the top-seeded Toronto Raptors by 4 games in the loss column.
The Celtics next play the Washington Wizards, and it doesn’t get any easier from there. Including Washington, 6 of 9 coming opponents would make the playoffs if the season ended today.